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Last Updated: Sunday, 17 February 2008, 18:45 GMT
High stakes for Musharraf in poll
By Chris Morris
BBC News, Gujrat, Pakistan

Musharraf supporter with banner in Islamabad
He retains loyal supporters, but many see Mr Musharraf as a liability

In the garden of a vast, colonnaded house in Gujrat, election agents from Pakistan's Muslim League-Q (PML-Q) party gather for one last pep talk from their leaders.

Just off the Grand Trunk Road, surrounded by the lush green fields of rural Punjab, this is the home of a powerful political clan - the Chaudrys.

For the last few years they have run the main political base of the PML-Q, the party closely allied with President Pervez Musharraf.

But at recent election rallies the party's candidates have made no mention of the man who has dominated Pakistani politics for a decade.

There is no avoiding the fact that, this year, Pervez Musharraf is not a name that will win his party many votes

The Chaudrys point out that the head of state is supposed to be above party politics, and they insist that he is not being deliberately ignored.

"He's not a liability, we don't feel that he's a liability to our party," said Chaudry Pervaiz Elahi, the PML-Q's prospective prime ministerial candidate.

"This election is a performance-based election, and you have to show people what you did for them in the last five years."

But there is no avoiding the fact that, this year, retired General Musharraf is not a name that will win his party many votes.

Sympathy vote

A couple of hours' drive down a Punjabi motorway, at a rally organised by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), posters of the assassinated opposition leader Benazir Bhutto look down upon the crowd.

There has been talk of a big sympathy vote.

Several of the people I spoke to at the rally said they used to support President Musharraf and the PML-Q. Not any more.

Ballot boxes prepared in Lahore
President Musharraf has said Monday's vote will be free and fair

"His policies are not right for the country," said one man, who gave his name as Nasir. "We don't feel safe going to the markets. So this time we're going to vote for the PPP."

Shafi, another new PPP supporter, agreed.

"Everything's so expensive now, and there's no security in the country," he said. "Musharraf himself was a good man, but the people he had around him were all blackmailers."

But do such sentiments reflect a more widespread anti-incumbent mood? And if so, what next?

Resignation calls

A coalition of small political parties, known as the All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM), is boycotting this election altogether.

Under Pervez Musharraf, it believes, opposition parties can achieve nothing positive - even if they get into government.

"This regime will not permit them to perform their democratic, constitutional and lawful approaches in parliament," said Mehmut Khan Achakzai, the APDM's chairman.

"They will try to release the judiciary from prison, they will try to have a powerful parliament. Conflict will be there. The best way is for Musharraf to resign, and for the Pakistan army to have no role in the body politic of Pakistan."

Musharraf's days are numbered. It can be a few months or a couple of years
Zaffar Abbas
Dawn newspaper

The military is deeply entrenched in this country, but there are already signs of a change in approach.

The new army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, who took over when President Musharraf stepped down from his military role last year, has ordered his soldiers to stay out of politics and give up lucrative jobs in the civilian bureaucracy.

The priority of the army at the moment is to concentrate on the fight against Taleban-style Islamist militants, particularly in areas close to the Afghan border.

So it wants to ensure that any political transition following this election is a smooth one.

Political risk

President Musharraf has insisted that he wants a stable democratically-elected government after a free and transparent election.

But many observers feel that, for him, this is a process fraught with political risk.

Supporters of Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party rally at Bhara Kahu near Islamabad (16.02.08)
The PPP has threatened street protests if it suspects fraud

"If there's a clean sweep for the parties opposing President Musharraf, the day after elections could be his last day," argued Zaffar Abbas, the Islamabad editor of Dawn newspaper.

"But if there's a mixed voting pattern then Musharraf will have some leverage to bargain with those political parties."

And when it comes to Mr Musharraf's chances of serving a full five-year term as civilian president, Mr Abbas is adamant.

"It depends on how the Pakistani military plays its role, and how the international community plays its role.

"But Musharraf's days are numbered. It can be a few months or a couple of years, but certainly not his full term."

Part of the problem

So the one man who is not running has a lot at stake in this election.

Pakistan has huge problems with militancy and inequality, and for years the west has backed Pervez Musharraf as the man to deal with them.

He is at heart a secular moderniser, and he still thinks he has a vital role to play. But he brooks no opposition and he has become a deeply divisive figure here.

For many people he is part of the problem, no longer part of the solution.



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